Of the eight major islands that make up the archipelago of Hawaii, Oahu is the most populous, with about 950,000 residents. Known as "The Gathering Place," it is the birthplace of President Obama, home to the State Capitol, rife with royal history and etched in infamy as a result of Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Don't forget the sunscreen and a lightweight long-sleeved shirt for evening, when the trade winds can bring a chill. A poncho or umbrella and good walking shoes are a must if you plan to explore one of the many rain forest gardens, which can get slick and muddy.
Has a well-earned nickname as the "Playground of the Pacific." We cut costs and stayed a couple of blocks up from the beach and had no regrets. Shopping ranges from kitschy to upscale. Likewise with the range of restaurants. Our favorite discovery was Ginza Won, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off the strip where there was no English menu and we cooked our own Korean barbecue at the table. A late-night happy hour at the revolving Top of Waikiki (www.topofwaikiki.com) featured $4 Skye martinis and $7 pupus (appetizers). My pick: a spicy ahi poke (seasoned raw fish) with papaya slaw, wonton, avocado and kiwi lime vinaigrette.
Visiting Pearl Harbor, still an active Navy base, is a must-do. The memorial over the sunken battleship Arizona is simple, elegant and moving. Day-of tickets are free; online tickets can be ordered for a $1.50 handling fee (www.nps.gov/valr). In downtown, tour Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaii's monarchy (www.iolanipalace.org).
Wintertime brings world-class waves, but even in the off-season watching surfers at the Banzai Pipeline and elsewhere makes for great spectating. The authentic town of Haleiwa can be found with signs showing its historic past, including an 80-year-old landmark bridge. Jameson's By the Sea restaurant is worth the price for a nice sunset and laid-back vibe (1-808-637-6272). Snorkel at Sharks Cove or, if you're adventurous, jump off the rock at Waimea Bay. Crowds gather at Laniakea Beach to see Hawaiian green sea turtles, where naturalists keep overeager tourists away from these threatened giants. We saw a few turtles while snorkeling, but the real show happens in the afternoon when they come ashore by the dozens to bask in the warmth.
The powder-white stretches on Lanikai Beach on the Windward Coast are considered among the best beaches in America. I took a turn paddleboarding toward the twin Mokulua Islands, which are bird sanctuaries. Kailua residents are in a clash to limit commercial activities, fearful that growing numbers of tour buses and water sport vendors could spoil the tranquility and ecosystem of the area.
After experiencing sticker shock over airline tickets alone, we turned to a AAA travel agent, who found us an unadvertised package deal for airfare, car and a two-night stay at an off-beach Waikiki hotel for about $1,000 each.